Sep 042015
 
George Carlin

George Carlin

Why can’t you slur a straight, white male?

From what I’ve been told (and what I remember of my childhood, though that’s probably very skewed) words like “fuck” and “shit” used to be a big deal. You couldn’t say them, and you couldn’t print them. Nowadays, unless children are around, no one really cares. They just mean you want a bit more emphasis in a particular sentence. You use ‘em on Facebook and no one blinks.

There are still some words that will elicit strong reactions. It’s difficult to use them in fiction without a lot of forethought. They will upset people on Facebook. There are only three I’m aware of, and they are:

Nigger

Cunt

Faggot

What’s interesting about them is that they are slurs against a specific group. You’d think you could extend the pattern, and find equally bad slurs for the counter groups, right? But you can’t.

Honkey or Cracker? Those have no punch at all. They’re so silly that they’re often used as jokes.

Prick has some insult behind it, but not much. It isn’t directly sexual (at least, not to anyone I know), and is basically just a variant of asshole. It’s mild enough that it gets used in PG-13 movies.

Breeder isn’t even that well known, and it again sounds more like a pun than a slur. You can kinda see the intent, but it’s hard to feel it.

What the first three words have that Honkey/Prick/Breeder don’t have is a history of violence. And not just any violence, but state-approved violence. When one is subjected to violence, there is a general threat of reprisal – there are laws against this. If the offending party is caught, they will be stopped. The victim can press charges afterwards. The Leviathan is fallible, but at least in theory the perpetrator of the violence is doing something wrong.

The three slurs listed come with the promise that the victim has no recourse. Society won’t just look away, society actively approves of their victimization. In fact, if the victim tries to defend him/herself, s/he will be punished for it by the Leviathan. The victim is powerless, a piece of refuse that is only allowed to exist because most people can’t be bothered to stomp it themselves. And this promise was loaded into the word by decades of exactly that – violence against those called such names, approved of by the state. They carry a meaning far deeper than mere words can lend them, they carry the weight of physical acts and lost lives.

I’m glad those words are considered as awful as they are. It means that we, as a society, now understand how horrific that legacy is. What words a society decides are too vile to be commonly used reflects upon what that society values. It’s a good sign that we value human dignity for all.

  5 Responses to “Profanity”

  1. There *are* what one might call anti-slurs – Nazi, racist, douchebro, bigot, white-cismale, and so on. They aren’t quite swearwords, but you never do seem to see them used much around children. They have a weight to them, but it’s the target who risks having to defend themselves, even if others will still be upset with you for daring to use them.

    These are the words that also “come with the promise that the victim has no recourse” – but the victim is the one using them. They’re imbued with violence, but it’s violence emanating *from* the target, not *to* them.

    Thus, anti-slurs – words for *things* we consider as awful as slurs. Carrying similar weight, but in the opposite direction.

    IOW I really think you’re onto something here. Interesting thesis.

  2. Interesting perspective. Those words certainly don’t carry the same weight here in Australia though. Pretty sure American TV is the only reason the first word has any meaning here. Second word is used pretty freely. People literally use the C word as a synonym for mate. Third word is also used pretty freely.
    I think which words were the worst three would depend upon to whom you were speaking. I wonder what it is like in Europe.

  3. Hmm….

    I think one important thing missing from this analysis is that the impact of a really taboo swear word can be self-sustaining. Historically, a word like ‘faggot’ would have been used against me in parallel with state-sanctioned violence, or as a way to threaten violence, it’s true. But today, the threat of gay bashing is much reduced. Now, I think, the primary message of the slur is as a form of self-description. It says, “I am a person [we are people] willing to say the word ‘faggot’, despite the social costs in doing so.” There’s still shades of barbarism there, but in a way that’s in opposition to the original context. Rather than threatening me with the implicit endorsement of civilization, they’re threatening me by implying that they have rejected the constraints of civilization. And so the strength of the taboo depends on our outrage.

  4. Profanity is not everyone’s cup of tea. You claim that, “Nowadays, unless children are around, no one really cares”. Maybe in your crowd. But out in public and in professional situations I think profanity is seen by some as more than mere “emphasis in a particular sentence”. Just because someone doesn’t complain about profanity being used, doesn’t mean they necessarily approve of its use.

    • That’s a fair point. There are words I don’t use at work out of social convention, even though I don’t find them offensive.

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